The biggest difference between the American system of education now and back in the 20th century is probably the spread of charter schools. Ten years ago most had never heard of them, but now they seem to be the first two words out of every politician's (of both parties) lips when they discuss education reform.
$5 billion of stimulus money has been made contingent on a number of policies being in place, perhaps most notably liberal laws regarding the founding of charter schools -- which has resulted in at least 7 states recently deciding to allow more charters. I have no idea what we'll think of charter schools in fifty years, but they seem a lock to proliferate further for at least the next five or ten. It seems that everybody (including both Bush and Obama and both Spellings and Duncan) is in favor of closing down more "failing" schools and opening up more charters.
But traditional public schools shouldn't be the only ones that are closed when failing. Advocates of charter schools should be advocating that low-performing charter schools be promptly closed as well. Why? Two main reasons, one theoretical and one practical:
1.) The theory behind charter schools is based largely on free market principles. Which is part of the reason they're so attractive on paper. The theory is that schools pop up in areas that are underserved by good public schools, then compete and win students over because they offer a superior education. Then more charter schools start and offer more competition -- ensuring that only the strong survive. Those that can raise their game to a new level draw students, those that cannot wither and die. In this way, we're left with only the best schools -- all others simply cease to exist. Like I said, it's quite attractive on paper. But one of problems with the plan is that it relies on fairly frequent school closures to work. And school closures are not usually eagerly anticipated by those involved with a school. But if charter school advocates are truly interested in charter schools succeeding they'll advocate that all low-performing charters be closed sooner rather than later to make room for more successful charters.
2.) We frequently hear about charter schools that have done something miraculous or closed the achievement gap. As such, many tend to believe that charters get results that are far superior to traditional public schools. But there is zero empirical research that supports this on a nationwide level. Every study comparing charters to traditional public schools finds somewhere near (and sometimes less than) zero advantage to attending a charter school. Maybe this is cynical to suggest, but if charters are your pet project and you're intent on proving their superiority, there's a fairly easy way to do this -- work to close all those charter schools that are seeing below average gains in student test scores. If we were only left with the KIPPesque charter schools that can turn water into wine, think what the results of national studies would look like -- then what politician, or citizen for that matter, could dispute the superiority of charters?
Still not convinced that the best way to push the propagation of more charter schools is to advocate closing more charters? Imagine a world in which charters fail: charter schools draw students because of proximity and special programs rather than performance, see their young, enthusiastic teaching corps grow old and weary, and activist parents that choose charters resist any closure plan. None of these would happen if charters were closed with the ruthless efficiency the theory would seem to dictate.